Reading Retrospective: 2016

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Howdy, folks. Sorry to be the bearer of old news, but I’m here to remind you of the not-so-distant yesteryear of 2016.

I decided to do a Reading Retrospective for 2016 not because my reading year was in any way exceptional, but because:

(a) I like making book recommendations,
(b) 2016 mostly sucked, except for my literary undertakings, and
(c) I might not get another chance—at least, not anytime soon. I’m on track to finish The List by April or May, at which point The Challenge (and this blog) will come to an end. Far from being sad about this, I am ecstatic to move on to other reading and writing projects and, hopefully, get a refund on my sanity.

So here it is: Your very own tour of My Year in Books, 2016 Edition. There were thrills and slogs and frolics and dawdles and everything in between, so plan your route carefully. God knows I didn’t.

First things first: I read a total of 57 books last year—unless, that is, you count In Search of Lost Time as six books instead of one. (I do.) (The List doesn’t.) Then I read 62.

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Me + books + sepia = ? (Not my bookshelf, BTW, but it might as well be.)

Here’s a breakdown of the 57 books that nudged their way into my 2016. Of those 57:

  • 17 were classics for The List (if ISoLT = 1)
  • 40 were purely for “pleasure” (at least, in theory)
  • 45 were works of fiction
  • 12 were non-fiction (of which 8 were memoirs)
  • 47 were first-time reads
  • 10 were rereads
  • 21 were audiobooks
  • 36 were paper books
  • 46 were “for adults”
  • 7 were “for young adults”
  • 4 were “for children”

Now for a summary of the books that stood out the most, in good ways or bad:

Best First-Time Reads:

  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. (Illuminating.)
  • Lady Susan by Jane Austen. (Playful.)
  • America Again: Re-Becoming The Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert. (Clever.)
  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (Penetrating.)
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. (Thought-provoking.)
  • Shrill by Lindy West. (Necessary.)
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain. (Validating.)

Best Rereads:

  • You Had Me at Hello by Mhairi McFarlane. (Charming.)
  • How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. (Spot-on.)
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. (Hilarious.)
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. (Nostalgic.)
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. (Witty.)

Worst Reads:

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. (Twisted.)
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. (Boring.)
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. (Stupid.)
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais. (Tedious.)
  • Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Listless.)

Longest Book:

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. (At 6 volumes and 4,217 pages, it’s the longest book I’ve ever read. It’s one of the longest books anyone has ever read, if Wikipedia and the Guinness Book of World Records have anything to say about it. Proust and I were together, on and off, for all of 2016—and a little sick of each other by the end of it.)

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It’s possible Volume 3 spent too much time in the sun.

The longest single-volume book I read was The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, at 1,120 pages.

Shortest Book:

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. (It may be short, but it packs a thousand gut-punches.)

Wait. Now that I think about it, We Should All Be Feminists was probably shorter. And while we’re on the subject, it, too, packs a thousand gut-punches—but mostly to the patriarchy.

The moral of this story is Don’t Judge a Book by Its Size. (If you don’t make room for the little guy, he’ll just develop a complex.)

Pleasant-est Surprises:

  • Every Day by David Levithan. (Touching.)
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. (Compelling.)
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. (Arresting.)
  • Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. (Revelatory.)

Biggest Disappointments:

  • Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding. (Mournful.)
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. (Self-aggrandizing.)
  • Naked by David Sedaris. (Creepy, I guess? Maybe he shouldn’t narrate his own audiobooks?)
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. (Disappointing ONLY because nothing can outdo Beloved, which I knew before I started.)

Most Original Reads:

  • The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. (First novel, anyone?)
  • Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. (Seriously, WTF?)
  • The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams. (Absurd and unpredictable.)
  • In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. (Philosophical and eloquent.)
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl. (Empowering and literally magical.)

Sad Books I Hope to Repress ASAP:

  • Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. (Cue tears.)
  • Every Day by David Levithan. (Cue loud cries of “Noooo!”)
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. (Cue slow torture.)
  • Native Son by Richard Wright. (Cue outraged lectures directed at anyone willing to listen.)

Memorable Characters I Couldn’t Repress Even If I Wanted to:

  • Achilles, from The Iliad. (Crybaby.)
  • Lady Susan Vernon, from Lady Susan. (Devious.)
  • Ringer, from The 5th Wave. (Badass.)
  • Sergeant Dime, from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (Commanding.)
  • Tyler Durden, from Fight Club. (Misguided.)
  • Bernadette Fox, from Where’d You Go, Bernadette. (Misunderstood.)

Book-to-Film Adaptations I Scrambled to Read Just in Time:

  • Lady Susan by Jane Austen.
  • Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding.
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey.
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

I loved all the films, for the record—especially Love and Friendship, based on Lady Susan.

Standard-Ass Classics That Left Little to No Impression:

  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.
  • Nostromo by Joseph Conrad.
  • Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  • U.S.A. by John Dos Passos.

Largely Unremarkable Memoirs (a.k.a. Why Do I Keep Reading Memoirs?):

  • I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley.
  • Sounds Like Me by Sara Bareilles.
  • The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer.
  • Naked by David Sedaris.

Miscellaneous Reads I Didn’t Love or Hate Enough to Fit Into Any of the Above Categories:

  • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
  • Who’s That Girl by Mhairi McFarlane.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.
  • Paper Towns by John Green.

And now, before I say my final “Thank you and good night”Fuck off forever” to the atrocity that was last year, here’s a quick glimpse at all the high points of my 2016. I hope you join me up here sometime; the view’s fantastic.

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Best Quotes of 2016:

Americans are incredibly polite as long as they get what they want.

-Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a Man of his age!—just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the Gout—too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.

-Jane Austen, Lady Susan

Boredom may well be the very essence of evil.

-Günter Grass, The Tin Drum

Social media is a great tool for all of us introverts and decent people alike as it speeds up the time between thinking someone is great and realizing they’re the worst.

-Amy Schumer, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo

But by far the worst thing we do to males — by making them feel they have to be hard — is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.
And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males.

-Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

Then they gave us heartfelt advice: if we wanted to rise in the courts of great noblemen, to be as economical as possible of the truth.

-François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel

“That’s right,” she told the girls. “You are bored. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret about life. You think it’s boring now? Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it’s on you to make life interesting, the better off you’ll be.”

-Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Long ago, I learned how to be brave, how to go forward always.

-Homer, The Iliad

I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better.

-Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman

Women matter. Women are half of us. When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time—that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.

-Lindy West, Shrill

“I once slept with this guy who had an ENORMOUS penis. Like, it was a problem. The condoms wouldn’t even fit. I was so overwhelmed that I accidentally laughed at it. And then it shrunk. He was not pleased.”
“That should be a comic book. Penis giganticus is his superpower, and women laughing at it is his kryptonite.”

-Jenny Lawson, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

I am the one not running, not staying, but facing.
Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity.
And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.

-Rick Yancey, The 5th Wave

Life is strewn with these miracles for which people who love can always hope.

-Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Bloody fucking dog pig black-livered bastard from hell. I hope his face gets put on a porcupine.

-Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.

-Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

There will never come a dawn when you do not have my heart.

-Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on—can you hear me? Pass it on!

-Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

If you stare at the center of the universe, there is a coldness there. A blankness. Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us.
That’s why we have to care about each other.

-David Levithan, Every Day

A very happy New Year to you all. And, as always, happy reading!

If I Could Only Have One Bookish Adventure in My Life, I’d Choose This One

If you were around last time, you’ll remember that I promised a life-altering post about bookish Bath, a town that smelled terrible a couple centuries ago but is fine now. I’m delivering on that promise today.

A year or two ago, my friend Anna mentioned a bookstore in Bath that offers what they call a Reading Spa. It was the coolest thing I had ever heard of, and I vowed to follow in her footsteps at the earliest opportunity.

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The best bookstore name since Shelf Indulgence

When you arrive at Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights for your Reading Spa appointment, you begin by sitting down with a staff member in the “bibliotherapy room” to have a one-on-one chat about your favorite books, authors, genres, themes, and so on. The bibliotherapist feeds you cake and tea and then disappears for ten minutes or so.

Scenes from Tintin grace the staircase.

Why hello, Tintin. Didn’t expect to see you there

When they return, it’s with a huge stack of books specially selected for you based on the chat you had. The bibliotherapist then talks you through each book, one by one, offering a plot teaser and the reasons it’s recommended for you. That done, you’re left alone to make the agonizing Sophie’s Choice of which books to take home (the voucher comes with £45 toward purchases), all the while stuffing yourself with tea and cake.

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The preciouses

My husband (let’s call him Spiderman) quickly jumped on board my Reading Spa bandwagon, because:

a) it sounded ridiculously cool, obviously,

b) we bought a new bookshelf recently and decided it was time to grow our book family, and

c) we both struggle with the age-old conundrum “don’t-want-to-waste-time-reading-books-we-don’t-like-but-can’t-possibly-know-if-we-like-a-book-until-we’ve-read-it.”

When I called to reserve a time slot, I was asked whether we wanted to share a spa session or book separate ones—in other words, is our taste in books similar or different? I LOLed and said our favorite books would scoff at each other if forced to use the same sidewalk or elevator. Separate spas was the way to go.

My bibliotherapist’s name was Nic, and he is someone I’d happily share a canoe or a bunker with. I came prepared with several lists and specified that classics should be avoided at all costs. (This seems like the appropriate time to mention my rosy-cheeked glory at being 2/3 of the way done with The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.)

My lists looked something like this:

Likes:

  • Contemporary and historical fiction
  • Travel writing
  • High-quality YA
  • Intelligence, insight, and wit
  • Lots of humor and a little bit of romance

Dislikes:

  • Poor/lazy writing
  • Weak female characters
  • Dark/depressing themes

I included an utterly incomplete index of my favorite authors:

  • Nick Hornby
  • Bill Bryson
  • Jane Austen
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Mhairi McFarlane

And a quick briefing on a few of my least favorite authors:

  • John Steinbeck
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • John Updike
  • Veronica Roth

I told Nic that I would especially love to find another Nick Hornby and/or Bill Bryson, and his reaction was a well-masked but resounding “Duh.” He said that Bill Bryson is, frankly, in a class of his own—a huge talent who is often underrated because his books are funny instead of S.E.R.I.O.U.S. I inched toward mild anxiety (Has Nic given up on me already???), but by the time our book chat was over, he claimed to have, if anything, too much information to go on. Plus I’d eaten a whole cake by that point.

Deep in discussion on crucial book matters

Deep in discussion on crucial book matters

When he returned from his quest, a tower of 22 books was cradled in his arms. He picked them up one by one and told me about:

  • The son of a drug baron who desperately wants, for his eighth birthday, a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia (Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos)
  • A blind French girl and an orphaned German boy who cross paths during World War II (All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr)
  • Hiking adventures in Afghanistan penned by a literary “ancestor” of Bill Bryson (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby)
  • A series of interconnected short stories that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan)

And much, much more:

  • Almost Heaven by Martin Fletcher
  • What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn
  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  • Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
  • How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
  • The Vacationers by Emma Straub
  • Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  • Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  • Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman
  • I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
  • Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir
  • May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes
  • American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
  • The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall
= happiness

= happiness

I took home the ones in bold above and began reading The Knife of Never Letting Go (the first installment of Patrick Ness’ YA trilogy Chaos Walking) on Sunday. I finished all three books in the series by midday yesterday, having put work and social life on hold until I’d reached the heart-stopping finale. Gripping and superbly written, Chaos Walking turned out to be the very definition of un-putdownable, if un-putdownable were an actual word. If it’s possible to read a book ferociously, then that is what I did. I could hear the pages shouting “Ow!” in protest as I tore through them.

So I’d say Mr. B’s is a tentative success.

My husband, Spiderman, arrived with enthusiasm for his own Reading Spa and left with a crush on his bibliotherapist, Ed. His prep looked like this:

Likes:

  • Fantasy and sci-fi (especially post-apocalyptic)
  • Historical fiction
  • Well-paced plots with unpredictable twists and conclusions
  • Rich, in-depth world building in new settings

Dislikes:

  • Long, tedious descriptions
  • Plot points that are “too easy”/any sort of deus ex machina

Some favorite books/series:

  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Lion of Macedon by David Gemmell
  • Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons
  • ASH: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Ed and Spiderman, stroking a nonexistent goatee

Ed with Spiderman, stroking a nonexistent goatee

And his eventual book tower looked like this:

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Children of the Days by Eduardo Galeano
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  • City of Stairs by R. J. Bennett
  • The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
  • A History of Histories by John Burrow
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer
  • The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
  • Pastoralia by George Saunders
  • The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
  • The Red Knight by Miles Cameron 
  • The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon
  • Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy
  • The City & the City by China Miéville
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In case you were wondering how Spiderman spends his time when he’s not out saving NYC from itself

The most exciting find for Spiderman was Ancillary Justice, winner of every major science fiction award in 2014 and written by a woman.

So there. I hope I’ve done my book advising duty for the day and paid Mr. B’s its proper tribute. Nic and Ed are largely to blame for our titanic suitcases on the way home, and for this mammoth blog post. Also my friend Anna. But let’s all stop pretending I minded for even a second.

YOU'RE WELCOME.

YOU’RE WELCOME.